When we think about the best coaches, we think about coaches who consistently get their teams to win, but more importantly, to improve. If we are to look at some of the top coaches, a few spring to mind across a variety of sports. Rinus Michels was the famous Ajax coach that won numerous championships, a European Cup, and a La Liga title before going on to lead the Dutch team to the European Championship win in 1988.
Louis Van Gaal won numerous championships including the Champions League with football teams across various countries including Ajax, Barcelona and Bayern Munich. Jose Mourinho famously won league and Champions League titles in various countries while we might also consider the relative success of Gérard Houllier, Roy Hodgson and Guus Hiddink who won championships and leagues, but were well known for improving teams they got involved with.
In the USA, Bill Walsh brought the San Francisco 49ers from bottom of the league to win 6 divisional titles and three superbowls in the 1980’s while no college basketball coach has ever dominated the sport like legendary UCLA coach John Wooden, where he won an unprecedented 10 national championships in 12 years in the 1960’s and 1970’s.
In rugby, the likes of former Ireland coach Joe Schmidt, former Australian and English rugby coach Eddie Jones and recently departed Leinster coach, Stuart Lancaster might register as being among the best in their sport, while in Gaelic sports in Ireland, Kerry football coach Paddy Tally and Limerick hurling coach Paul Kinnerk might spring to mind. There is one thing that they all have in common. They all started their careers as teachers of Physical Education.
It is probably no fluke that these successful coaches had a professional background in physical education, prior to their involvement in coaching at the highest level in their respective sports. It would have ingrained in them, an awareness of best practice in message delivery and knowledge transfer, enabling them to optimise their contact time with their players, so that they can improve consistently and collectively in their pursuit of championship success.
Their background as teachers of sport essentially would have enabled them to address some complex issues that need to be addressed for their teams to achieve success. Firstly, coaches need to have a very strong background and game understanding in the given sport so that they will be able to assess where their players are technically and tactically deficient and what they need to do to improve. This would invariably require development of individual and collective performance improvement plans (PIPS) that would positively enhance skill and fitness levels for each player, while getting them to play cohesively well together in the best interests of team success. For this to happen, they’d also have needed to foster a positive group chemistry and foster the right culture with people surrounding the group (physiotherapists, fitness / S&C professionals, performance analysts etc) so that these player groups have the desire to develop physically, technically and tactically within that culture and give of their best for the team and group.
So, when we look at it in the round, it’s no secret that that among the best coaches in high performance sport are coaches with professional backgrounds in Physical Education. Their formal professional training would have delved into best practice and science behind a variety of issues in relation to sports performance improvement such as fitness development, effective coaching and skill acquisition, tactical and technical development. This expertise, in addition their development of understanding around good teaching practice in relation to message delivery and clarity around communication has served them well as they sought and seek to maximise the potential of the teams they have been involved with, suggesting that good coaching and good teaching go hand in glove.
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Keith Begley is a member of BASES and an accredited performance psychologist with Sport Ireland Institute.
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Performance psychologist - accredited with Irish Institute of Sport